The New England Patriots’ free agency spending spree has produced some impressive results so far this season.
Matthew Judon and Hunter Henry lead the team in sacks and touchdowns, respectively; Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor are starter-caliber wide receivers; Davon Godchaux has helped shore up one of the worst run defenses in football; Jalen Mills, Kyle Van Noy and Ted Karras are all starters at their respective positions.
Then, there is Jonnu Smith.
While not necessarily a disappointment, Smith has not yet lived up to his four-year, $50 million contract, at least in terms of his statistical impact: appearing in 10 out of 11 games, he has caught only 22 passes for 210 yards and one touchdown. He also carried the football four times for 20 yards. For comparison, Hunter Henry — playing on a three-year, $37.5 million pact — has touched the football 33 times for 378 yards and seven scores.
One reason for Smith’s relative lack of production has been his usage: he has been employed as a blocker on 64 percent of his snaps this season, up from 57 percent as a member of the Tennessee Titans last year.
The 26-year-old, however, is not worried about his role or his statistical lack of production.
“No, not at all. That’s part of it. I’ve been embraced by such a good group of guys, great coaches. I’m just glad that we’re in the position that we’re in right now, to put ourselves in a great opportunity to just continue to strive and get better and to continue to progress,” he said earlier this week.
“Whatever it is I’m called or asked to do, that has always been the player I’ve been: I’m not going to worry about the role. As players, we don’t sit here and say, ‘Okay, this is what we’re going to do this week.’ That’s the coaches’ job. It’s our job to go out and execute it. That’s all I can worry about.”
The execution part has been on and off, at least when judged from afar. Not only is Smith ranked just eighth on the team in yards from scrimmage, he also has dropped three passes and has been the target on two of quarterback Mac Jones’ interceptions — including a pick-six in Week 3 against the New Orleans Saints.
Still, the Patriots’ coaching staff seems to be happy with what Smith has brought to the table so far.
“I think he’s acclimated well,” said head coach Bill Belichick. “Unfortunately, he missed some time this spring, but from training camp on, he’s taken a lot of reps, and I think he’s acclimated well into the system.”
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, meanwhile, also spoke highly of the veteran.
“No question he adds an element of unique ability,” he said. “He’s been a good addition, a great teammate.”
McDaniels also used the phrase “foundational year” to describe Smith’s current status. Speaking about how first-year players have to get used to the team’s system, especially at the tight end position, McDaniels noted that a lot is being asked of someone like Smith.
“The tight end position, obviously here and everywhere, is unique because you’re involved in so many different things: run blocking, pass receiving, pass protection, alerts, motion. There’s a lot of different things you have to do well,” McDaniels said. “Jonnu’s tried really hard to do all the things we’ve asked him to do. I always think the first year that we have an opportunity to have a free agent in our system is kind of a foundational year.
“They might have heard NFL vernacular and been around NFL football, but sitting in Bill’s squad meetings, listening to what we do on a weekly basis, fitting into how we change the offense from one week to the next to try to attack the defense’s weaknesses or protect our weaknesses, I don’t know how much of those things happen at other places.”
When asked about McDaniels’ statements, Smith pointed out that every transition would bring some adjustment with it. The question would be how this process is handled.
“You get to anywhere the first time in your life and it’s an adjustment,” he said. “It’s just about how well you adjust. Just coming in with the same mindset every day, put my hard hat on, and I’m just thankful for the position that we’re in right now. We know we have a lot more football left and we’ve given ourselves the opportunity to continue to play a lot more football. I’m thankful for that opportunity; that’s just where I’m at right now.”